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Sass Rogando Sasot: Love Advocate

After a suicide attempt, “I lived with a deep sense of purpose: I would help initiate a transgender movement in the Philippines, and I’d like to become part of a group that would help initiate change in our society,” recalls Sass Rogando Sasot, who helped establish STRAP that now help to empower transpinays.

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Sass Rogando Sasot
Co-founder, Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines

“Engaging in activism, especially in an advocacy work that is so close to your heart, can be so depressing and frustrating sometimes – but this kind of activism is about stimulating a paradigm shift, and history has shown us that paradigm shifts come not so easily, (with) a critical mass needed for deep-rooted change. You cannot create this critical mass, but you can be part of it,” says Sass Rogando Sasot.

“I got involved, and am still involved, in transgender (TG) activism and advocacy because of love.”

That, says Sass Rogando Sasot, is how she, well, got involved in GLBTQIA advocacy.

“My high school life was laced by intense doubt about everything handed to me by culture and tradition. I questioned the way things are. Blind conformity suffocated me.”

In 1999, as a fourth year high school student, “gender gender politics aroused my interest,” says Sass, who, at that time, had a relationship “with one of my classmates, (which) sparked a scandal in my school, an exclusive Roman Catholic school for boys. Everyone wanted to offer an explanation why my boyfriend fell in love with me: Was he insane? Or was he a homosexual? My boyfriend and I even had an awkward conversation about this, with me asking him: ‘Do you like me because I’m a boy?’  He said no. For him and for me, he was just a boy falling in love and having a relationship with a girl. But, ultimately, it was a non-issue for us. After all, it wasn’t gender identity nor sexual orientation that sparked the love we felt and shared with each other. Love, after all, is genderless, hence has no sexual orientation.”

Sass, of course, recognizes “that strange tenacity to force other people to define themselves so that we can bear the indefinability and immensity of life and love by turning them into spectacles of convenient labels,” she says. It was, after all, this tendency to define, i.e. in the “way people treated my boyfriend” that made Sass “so concerned to define my gender. This quest for definition led me to know and understand transsexualism (TS).”

GROWING PAINS

Sass’ earliest exposures to TS were through the Internet – understandably predominated by Western literature, so that “at an early age of 17, my brain devoured everything about transsexual issues. I read, through the website of symposion.com, the e-book version of Harry Benjamin’s seminal book, The Transsexual Phenomenon. I related so much to his description of transsexualism. From that moment, I considered myself as a transsexual girl,” she says.

Male-to-female transsexualism was, by the way, the subject of Sass’ term paper in her English class (then).

After self-identifying as a TS, Sass came out to her mother through a letter – and it would become one of the most painful decision she is to do in life.

“Through a letter, I told her that I was not gay, that I was a transsexual, that I wanted to start taking hormones, and live full time as a woman. It was the first time I opened up to a family member,” Sass says.

Perhaps she should have anticipated the usual (negative) reaction, but “I thought she would be supportive. I was wrong. It alarmed her. She had my hair, which was below my chin (then), cut so incredibly short. She insisted that I am not a girl but a boy because I have a penis. And that instead of reading the stuff I was reading, I should start reading those that would forge a male identity in me. She advised me to start thinking ‘I’m a boy’ and nothing else. She assured me that there is nothing going to happen in my life if I insist on what I like and that my talent and intelligence would just waste away because society will never accept people like me. To cap it all, she threatened that she would not pay my college education if I would continue my delusion.’”

It was this reaction from a loved one that developed in Sass internalized transphobia – with her initial “acceptance that perhaps my mother was right,” especially since she had no one to turn to for support, so she came to think, too, that “There’s nothing good that was going to happen to me if I would insist on what I said I am: I would just end up as society’s entertainment. To go on existing like what she insisted me to be, which is as a man, and to live as what I felt myself to be, which is as a woman, were no different from being dead.”

Unhappy with her situation, and the seeming futility of living, Sass attempted suicide in December 2000.

PURPOSE DRIVEN

After Sass’ suicide attempt, “I lived with a deep sense of purpose: I would help initiate a transgender movement in the Philippines, and I’d like to become part of a group that would help initiate change in our society. I want a society that would cherish, value, and respect the flourishing of one’s individuality. My 20th century ended with this purpose flickering inside of me, driving me to go and explore the world,” she says.

That was after EDSA 2 (which saw the removal from the Office of the Presidency of Joseph Ejercito Estrada), sometime in January 2001, when Sass – after writing to volunteer herself to, among others, Amnesty International-Philippines and the Rationalist Humanist Society of the Philippines. The latter allowed her to meet “a group of free thinkers, passionate individuals, mostly from a generation senior than mine, who would like to propel secularism in the Philippines.”

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Among the people Sass met were “Poch Suzara, a staunch atheist and humanist; and Margarita Ventinalla-Hamada, founder of Harvent School, a school in Pangasinan (a province in the Philippines) which doesn’t use grades and considers its students as individuals rather than a group of people receiving indoctrination”; and Aleksi Gumela, who “shared the same dance that I was dancing – a gay guy, an anarchist, an atheist, a freethinker, a bohemian, a philosopher, an artist, a creature of the counterculture. Aleksi shared the same zest for exploring life beyond tradition and conventions that was flickering in me,” Sass says.

It was Aleksi who introduced Sass to the Luneta University – a gathering of free-spirited radicals (meeting at the Chess Plaza), “self-styled rebels with a lot of cause,” who gathered for “discussions on philosophical questions: from art, to boredom, to god, to stupidity. We nurtured each other’s intellectual development.

Sass Rogando Sasot: “Society is so genital-centric. The genitalia, a minuscule part of a person, become the most definitive part of the body – more than our brains. If you’re going to come to think of it, the male and female on our birth certificates, as well as the question ‘Are you boy or a girl?’ are all euphemisms to telling others and asking you what genitalia you have between your legs.”

The homeless, the vagabonds, and sidewalk vendors listened to our conversations. We wanted freedom from the fangs of hierarchy. We believed in no gods, in no masters, in personal liberation, in individuality, in diversity, in mutualism, in a voluntary society. We held Food Not Bombs sessions. We marched in anti-globalization rallies. But along our seriousness, we had our share of fun and deep belly laughter. It was our la vie boheme!”

It was this partnership with Aleksi that paved the way for the formation of the Luneta Freedom Collective (LFC), a counterculture performance art group that performed in “artsy” bars, in a zine convention, in an underground punk concert, in protest rallies, in a gathering of filmmakers in a full moon’s night, in the park, in schools – and it was this that allowed Sass to showcase Ayoko sa mundo nyo (I don’t want to be in your world), a monologue she wrote about the struggle for personal gender and sexual liberation.

KILLING THE SPIRIT

In May 2001, Sass experienced yet another blow of discrimination.

“It was from the college department of the school where I finished my elementary and secondary school. I was already aware that they were tough about ‘effeminate’ students – after all, it was a school with: 1) An official recommendation letter form that asked the person writing your recommendation, who was usually your class adviser and guidance counselor, to rate your masculinity from 1 to 10; and 2) That required ‘effeminate’ students, along with their parents, to sign a ‘pink form’ that acted as sort of contract that the student wouldn’t be ‘effeminate’ in school. These things were already horrendous, right? What they did to me was more deplorable – I wasn’t allowed to take the entrance examination,” Sass recalls, adding how “the head of the admission’s officer, Mrs. C, had the gall – or the conscience – to talk to me and explained right in my face why they were doing it.”

Supposedly, for being effeminate (sans recognition for her being for being a TS), Sass was considered a bad influence – “That they know that I was an intelligent student, but, since it was an all-boys’ school, a Catholic school, the way I presented myself would be problematic,” Sass says. “Then she tried to console me by giving me a dash of hope. Sensing my desperation, she issued some sort of a bargain: If I were willing to act as some kind of a role model to the younger years, they might consider me. That I would show that I have changed, that I have let go of my ‘old ways,’ that I would clearly demonstrate that I was a reformed flamboyant effeminate who finally embraced and accepted his masculinity.”

Sass, of course, couldn’t live a lie.

At that time was when Sass got connected with the Task Force Pride (TFP) Philippines, the group that organizes the annual Pride March in Metro Manila – a group that, for a while, was in the receiving end of Sass’ anger, blamed for “claiming that they were representing LGBTs, even if they didn’t really understand transgender issues, and that what they were doing was just tokenism.” It was select people from TFP (particularly Malu Marin and Ging Cristobal) who encouraged Sass to form a transgender group.

RISE OF STRAP

That discrimination is done even by those suppose to fight anti-discrimination is a fact, e.g. On July 29, 2001, the Regional Director of the Commission on Human Rights in Cebu, Attorney Alejandro Alonzo, commenting on a TG being barred entry to a club in Cebu City for wearing women’s clothing, was quoted as saying: “They (gays) should wear proper attire, and I don’t think (the club’s policy is) a violation because customers should follow the house rules. There should be appropriate attire because they are governed by dress code.” He added: “If you’re a man, you should wear the apparel of a man or vice versa.”

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The continuing discrimination – and lack of representation to speak in behalf of the discriminated – led in 2002 a meeting between Sass and Jane, who agreed to meet to discuss the formation of a transgender support and advocacy group, the Society of Trans and Gender Rights Activists of the Philippines (STRAP).

In July of 2002, Sass met Vee (through a common friend), and then in November in 2002, Sass met Dee (who read a transcript of Sass’ speech delivered in Italy on the website of Transgender Asia Research Centre), leading to another meeting in December 2002, when STRAP was “formally” established.

Unfortunately, for its lack of focus (“After all, the transgender community is such a broad and diverse group with so many issues and concerns,” Sass says), STRAP was only active for a year and then became dormant.

In March 2003, Sass then became a research assistant for Dr. Sam Winter, centre director of Transgender Asia Research Centre (TARC), which did a study on male-to-female (MTF) transgender people in the Philippines, particularly in the three major cities of Metro Manila, Metro Cebu, and Metro Davao.

Interestingly, completion of the research (done in 2003 and 2004, with the output published in the Volume 11 of the International Journal of Transgenderism, the journal that Sass herself used to read in high school) triggered “one of the most depressive episodes, so far, in my life. As I was talking to respondents, I got so immersed into their stories. I felt their hopelessness, their apathy, their utter resignation that ‘it’s just the way things are.’ I became extremely jealous of their resignation. I envied their apathy.”

Sass, at first, “did all escape possible to get out of this crisis. I partied a lot. Dated a lot. I did everything to make my depression bearable. My life was in chaos. I was so lost, lost, lost, and lost. I could no longer recognize who I was.”

In October 2004, Sass decided to go back to her family, “hoping to retrace my footsteps and find what I had lost along the way.” This meant becoming “masculine” – something that made her mother happy enough to send Sass to school again; though the stay only lasted for a year, when Sass was able to “slowly emerge from the abyss I had fallen into.”

On May 20, 2005, Sass met up with Dee and Veronica to re-launch STRAP – this time, “making (it) focus on one issue (which in itself is complex enough) to make it more effective and efficient in the long run.” STRAP, despite retaining the acronym, was also renamed as the Society of Transsexual Women of the Philippines.

In October 2005, Sass decided to finally “end my masquerade – since there was no way I could live as a woman and be with my family, I left them. I stayed with friends and worked in call centers.”

By then of course, she has already become one of the key voices to represent the TG and TS community – e.g. in 2006, Sass served as a moderator for the opening plenary session of the First Transgender Rights Conference (also during the 23rd International Lesbian and Gay Association or ILGA World Conference) in Geneva, Switzerland.

In 2006, too, after a friend (Sophia) helped her, Sass secured an educational grant, so she is now back to school, taking up Human Resource Management at the Open University of Hong Kong.

BIG INSPIRATIONS

“I prefer the word inspire to influence because the people I encountered in my life inspired me to spark by myself this passion rather than influence me to have this passion,” Sass says.

Sass Rogando Sasot: “I prefer the word inspire to influence because the people I encountered in my life inspired me to spark by myself this passion rather than influence me to have this passion.”

Among those to inspire her include: “My boyfriend in high school was so supportive of my interest – we saw a book (Patrick Califia’s Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism) in the book section of Tower Records sometime in 2000, and he bought it for me, and that took my journey into the world of transgender activism and gender and sexuality issues into a much deeper level.”

And then, since her days in Luneta, her friend Aleksi; FTM activists (“My first real mentors”); Jamison Green (“An FTM activist and an international transgender activist – I consider him as my first mentor”); Dr. Stephen Whittle, OBE (one of the founding members of Press for Change UK, and one of the writers of the Yogyakarta Principles); and Briton Sophia (“who helped me have education”).

And then there are Dee Mendoza (“Current chairwoman of STRAP, who inspired me to be diplomatic); Pau Fontanos (“Her hard work for the community has been a constant source of inspiration”); Bemz Benedito, secretary of Ang Ladlad Party List (“who stood up for her dignity in the sexual harassment case she filed against a co-worker”); Ms Georgina Beyer, a former Member of the Parliament of New Zealand, the first transsexual person in the world who was elected as an MP; and the women of STRAP (“They have been a constant source of joy and courage. They have widened my understanding of life, in general, and of living this kind of life, in particular”).

Becoming a TG activist hasn’t been easy – but it’s always fruitful, says Sass. “Engaging in activism, especially in an advocacy work that is so close to your heart, can be so depressing and frustrating sometimes – but this kind of activism is about stimulating a paradigm shift, and history has shown us that paradigm shifts come not so easily, (with) a critical mass needed for deep-rooted change. You cannot create this critical mass, but you can be part of it.”

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FACING CHALLENGES

“Being a transgender person is fraught with so much difficulty. Generally speaking, opportunities in life are already scarce. But the prejudice against people who violate gender norms raises the cost of getting an opportunity for people like us,” Sass says. Living as a TG “can be a lonely life. Having a loving relationship can be so difficult. Non-transsexual people don’t need to explain to whoever they are dating that genitals they were born with. There’s always that worry that people will reject you not because of you, as a person, but because you don’t fit the standard definition of what it means to be male or female.”

This is why, for Sass, advocating TG rights is important – and this is even if “doing advocacy work for TG people is like talking in a foreign language. How do you explain to people your internal reality, considering that most of us are too lazy to scratch beneath the surface and question the assumptions handed over to us by tradition? Moreover, society is so genital-centric. The genitalia, a minuscule part of a person, become the most definitive part of the body – more than our brains. If you’re going to come to think of it, the male and female on our birth certificates, as well as the question ‘Are you boy or a girl?’ are all euphemisms to telling others and asking you what genitalia you have between your legs.”

Sass elaborates: “I face the personal challenges of being a transgender person by appreciating the things that come my way, no matter how insignificant they seem. Just like in creativity, we get acquainted with happiness through the simple things in life. The world is certainly not beautiful all the time, but it’s also not just about hate, violence, despair, and all those horrible things. The beauty of a sunset, the elegance of a crescent moon, the eloquence of a shared laughter, the unselfish sound of rain, is all greater than the pain and loneliness we experience in this world.”

As an advocate, Sass considers an achievement “being able to inspire people to take the responsibility to stand up for themselves. Sometime in January 2009, while I was in Malate with friends, someone approached me and asked me whether I’m Sass Sasot. She was a young woman of transgender experience. She told me that she was inspired by the article I wrote for (the now defunct) ICON Magazine and that she was inspired to follow her dreams wherever it will take them. That moment was just so heartwarming.”

There remain challenges, obviously – and not just for Sass and/or the TG community, but the whole GLBTQIA community.

“This is what disappoints me: the current lack of dialogue in the community – this prevents us from having a united front,” Sass says, adding that she is, nonetheless, inspired by GLBTQIAs “who have an intimate affair with their courage.”

For Sass, there are three issues the Filipino GLBTQIA community has to focus on, i.e. 1) The passage of the Anti-Discrimination law (“We need legal remedies if we experience unfair discrimination based on our sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression”); 2) Dialogue with the business and school communities (“The key players in these two sectors can pave the way for making the workplace and schools in our country safe for sexual and gender diversity”); and 3) Passage of a Gender Recognition Law similar to that of the UK and Spain (“It’s about time that the lived gender identity of transsexual people be reflected on their legal papers “).
With these, Sass, not surprisingly, intends to “follow the beating of my star, keep on drumming my own drum, and perhaps, along the way, find someone I can share my song with. Life is always throwing me in directions where I always get involved with transgender issues, so you can expect me that in whatever I do in life will be along these lines or at least intersects with it.”

STANDING PROUD

Pieces of advice are, says Sass, oftentimes a result of one’s frustration in life; “but if you insist that I give them, here they are: First: remember that you are doing it for yourself. This may sound as an egoistic way of approaching advocacy. I’m not a fan of advocating ‘selflessness’ as I firmly believe that selflessness cannot be advocated, to campaign for it is to kill it. Know and understand yourself, don’t be afraid of your own shadow, and that of others,” Sass says.

She then adds that, second: Always remember that you are part of any system you are against, you were born out of it, you live in it. The system does not exist independently of us and we don’t exist independently of it – we build it as much as it builds us. We are not above, beyond, nor outside of it. Everyone is both a demon and an angel in this intricate web of oppression. To dismantle the system is to dismantle your self – be prepared, for it takes so much courage and honesty to accept this.”

And “third: In the course of your advocacy, you may affect some changes in policy, but these, at best, no matter how much we fought for them, are cosmetic ones. Change, like in matter, comes in subtle ways and this is the change that is transformative and the one that you will unavoidably exude after you yourself flow at one with the change you want in others. Light doesn’t preach to darkness, the night simply knows its time is over and gives way to daylight.”

It is still love that drives Sass now.

“Best lesson learned in life? That we are more than our pain and suffering. No matter how many times we fall, it is inevitable that we will stand up again,” Sass ends. “And if you want a lasting revolution, then LOVE! – dance with it!”

"If someone asked you about me, about what I do for a living, it's to 'weave words'," says Kiki Tan, who has been a writer "for as long as I care to remember." With this, this one writes about... anything and everything.

#KaraniwangLGBT

The lone drag queen

Kenneth Lemuel Esteban interviews Lawrence Villiones, a.k.a. Wire Shun, the 23-year-old lone drag queen of San Jose City, Nueva Ecija, who believes that doing drag is not just a way of expression but is a way of self-empowerment that can also empower other people.

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This is part of #KaraniwangLGBT, which Outrage Magazine officially launched on July 26, 2015 to offer vignettes of LGBT people/living, particularly in the Philippines, to give so-called “everyday people” – in this case, the common LGBT people – that chance to share their stories.
As Outrage Magazine editor Michael David C. Tan says: “All our stories are valid – not just the stories of the ‘big shots’. And it’s high time we start telling all our stories.”

“It is very hard to fight for my sexuality and, at the same time, fight for my drag artistry here in the province because most people here are not open enough to understand both.”

So said Lawrence Villiones, a.k.a. Wire Shun, the 23-year-old lone drag queen of San Jose City, Nueva Ecija, who continues to experience hardships for being part of the LGBTQIA community and for being a drag artist in the province.

For Lawrence, discrimination happens every day for him as a member of the LGBTQIA community. “On a daily basis, discrimination is inevitable here in the province. You can witness discrimination in public and sometimes even at work.”

And as if Lawrence is not oppressed enough because of his sexuality, he is also forced to abstain from being the drag performer – something that he always wanted to become – due to the lack of drag culture, and the knowledge and appreciation of the same in the province.

“Being a drag queen here in the province can get really hard… because we don’t have nightclubs and bars that (hire) drag artists for gigs just like in other cities. If there only is a drag culture here in the province, I’d be able to live and enjoy my drag career to the fullest,” he said.

Nowadays, people often judge other people through race, size and gender preferences so Lawrence thinks that, “as a member of the LGBT community, we should convey messages of inclusion and diversity.”

Not surprisingly, Lawrence hopes that “someday, I want be able to have a platform to showcase my talent and show the people that I am more than just someone who can do drag make-up. I want to show them that I can also perform. I can also ‘lip-sync for my life’.”

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Lawrence discovered the art of drag when, “I was in high school, I saw ‘Rupaul’s Drag Race’ on TV, and I got curious. I just tried to watch a single episode.” Lawrence said that at that moment, “I had zero interest and idea on what drag is. I just got the urge to know more about it.”

As soon as he finished college, he tried looking for a hobby, and “I rediscovered drag artistry on social media and I had the time that I didn’t have before so I decided to explore more from the world of drag.”

Lawrence’s drag name is Wire Shun, inspired by his favorite character from a Korean drama that he always watches.

Sometimes, Lawrence wants to go outside as Wire Shun but he can’t because “people here in the province might not understand my art.” he said. “Most of my neighbors might judge me because of my craft because other than the fact that they don’t understand the concept of drag, my drag style is very different and creepy so things might get too overwhelming for them.”

Lawrence added that “even my family is not aware that I do drag… No one knows that I do drag and that drag is my passion.”

And so for Lawrence, the only way for him to express his artistry is “by performing alone in my room.”

Lawrence hopes that “someday, I want be able to have a platform to showcase my talent and show the people that I am more than just someone who can do drag make-up. I want to show them that I can also perform. I can also ‘lip-sync for my life’.”

His drag style is, “very alternative. I serve looks that are very unique, spooky and sometimes it may even look alien-ish,” he said.

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Alternative drag is, Lawrence said, not the typical style that other drag artists do. “It is very different from the looks of other mainstream queens appearing on television because those queens are more focused on serving beauty pageant aesthetic and feminine looks. “

For him, “alternative drag on the other hand has no limitations when it comes to expressing your artistry”

Lawrence is very different from his drag persona; they are like a paradox.

Lawrence can be just as “mundane as I could be. I am just a person trapped in what the society expects me to be. I am just an artist looking for a way to express my talent and creativity.” When out of drag, “I am just this shy person who lacks a huge deal of confidence.” But when he is finally in drag, he can “get very wild and cocky… a complete opposite when he (I am) out of drag.”

Lawrence believes that doing drag is not just his outlet and way of expression, but is also his way of self-empowerment with hopes of empowering other people.

Nowadays, people often judge other people through race, size and gender preferences so Lawrence thinks that, “as a member of the LGBT community, we should convey messages of inclusion and diversity.” He gushed as he added that for him, “my drag artistry is my way of expression and through my art is how I convey that message to people.”

“Being a drag queen here in the province can get really hard… because we don’t have nightclubs and bars that (hire) drag artists for gigs just like in other cities. If there only is a drag culture here in the province, I’d be able to live and enjoy my drag career to the fullest,” he said.

To the aspiring drag queens and artists in general who thinks that they are limited because they are in the province, Lawrence has this to say: “Living in a (non-metropolitan) city is not that big of a deal because no matter where we are, we can showcase our talent and artistry. We just need to learn how to be resourceful. Just unleash your creativity and you can do it no matter who you are. All drag is valid. So just keep on honing your craft and artistry. Let’s just live on and keep on learning so that we’ll be able to reach our goals in life.”

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People You Should Know

What it’s like to be a lesbian artist in this generation

Meet Pixie Labrador, an openly lesbian singer/songwriter, who laments the under-representation of lesbians in the music industry, which is unfortunate because she believes that music can help mainstream discussion of LGBTQIA issues. “Lesbians get invalidated, discriminated and fetishized because of who we choose to love, and it’s disappointing to know that… some people would choose to overlook the passion and dedication we’ve put into honing our art,” she says.

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Photo courtesy of Pixie Labrador

“Lesbian artists in the Philippines are not being represented enough. In fact, if I’m being honest, it would’ve taken me a while to name a few at the top of my head, which is alarming and something I’m not proud of. It’s a shame because we are part of such a talented, inspiring community, and very few people recognize it.”

That, according to Pixie Labrador, is the current state of representation of lesbian artists in the Philippines.

And for her, this is bad because “lesbians get invalidated, discriminated and fetishized because of who we choose to love, and it’s disappointing to know that the close-mindedness of some people would choose to overlook the passion and dedication we’ve put into honing our art.”

Pixie is an openly lesbian singer/songwriter, with over 9,095 monthly listeners on Spotify. Her most popular song on Spotify – “What’s it Like” – is about unrequited love, but uses just the right amount of pronouns for fans to openly identify her pride on her gender identity. The same song – which has a stanza that goes: “And I know from a distance| That I can’t compare | To the burn in her eyes | Or the love that she bears | It’s too much to hand over | But you never cared | For as long as your heart was with her” – is also included on her first album, “Does It Hurt””.

“Sometimes people would assume that in my music, I’m talking about being in love with a man (even) when the pronouns I use are very clear in the lyrics of the song,” Pixie quipped. “It’s another case of heteronormativity and invalidation, and It needs to be stopped.”

Being a lesbian “kind of” affects her craft/music, Pixie said, “in the sense that my music is heavily targeted towards the queer community, and it’s mostly based off of my personal experiences on loving other women.” However – and Pixie stressed this – “although I feel that rather than saying ‘being a lesbian’ is affecting my music, it’s really more of just me being my genuine self, if that makes sense. Like, I don’t write because I’m a lesbian. I’ll write what I feel and think regardless of what I identify as, simply because it’s something I love to do.”

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But by and large, for Pixie, sexuality does not really matter when creating music.

“That’s the great thing about art: anyone can make it, and it’s so expressive and limitless. I don’t think it would make sense to have sexuality matter in making music. I feel like it disregards people who are questioning or unsure of their own sexuality, as well as people who just don’t give a damn about labels, which is also entirely valid. It just so happens that I have a specific style of writing that touches on my sexuality, but it doesn’t mean everyone has to do it that way. Basically, you don’t have to question yourself to make music. Just do it.”

TOUCHING LIVES

Pixie is actually fortunate that “my audience, my family, and my friends have all been so accepting and supportive of me… When I started writing more frequently, and was trying to find my own unique style, writing in regards to loving as a lesbian just came so naturally to me. I published ‘Maybe’ and the response was so overwhelming. I didn’t realize how many people I’ve helped with just one song. So after that, there was a click in my head that made me think: ‘This is what people need: LGBT representation by LGBT creators.’ So I wanted to give exactly that. Eventually, my fans started giving me nicknames like ‘Lesbian Queen’, ‘WLW Icon’, ‘Queen of The Gays’, and things like that. It’s because of them that it kind of became my branding. My family seems to recognize this too, and they’re all for it as well. My parents show their support by coming to whatever gigs they possibly can, even though they’re heard me live dozens of times. I feel really blessed.”

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Pixie is also “lucky enough to not have experienced discrimination during gigs, and hopefully I never will. Most of the gigs I’ve been to were at safe spaces, and I’m glad I can feel comfortable working with trustworthy organizations, and in certain venues.”

MUSIC FOR THE STRUGGLE

Pixie recognizes, however, that the struggle of the LGBTQIA community particularly locally is far from over.

“There is still so, so much we need to fight for before we can even get close to the kind of acceptance we hope to achieve. Every time I think we’re getting closer to our goal, I would see something on social media, like a news headline, about something terrible that’s happened to someone in the community. It’s truly devastating,” she said.

But for Pixie, “the LGBT community is really the strongest bunch of individuals that I know. Despite the challenges that come with being our true selves, we push through every day, 365 days a year. We might not be where we want to be right now, but I know our struggles will all be worth it someday.”

And how does Pixie use her platform as an artist to help the LGBTQIA community?

“I’d like to think that as an I artist, I touch on topics that are very real and relatable, especially to people who are still figuring themselves out. It’s actually quite cliché when you think about it. ‘Maybe’ is about falling in love with your best friend. ‘For You’ is about being in love. ‘What’s It Like’ and ‘Use Me’ are about unrequited love. It’s not all that different from mainstream media. When it comes to my writing, I don’t talk about the LGBT community in such an ‘in your face’ kind of way; but it’s more of using real, firsthand experiences to make unaccepting people realize we’re not as alien as they think we are. We are capable of feeling what they do, and we deserve to be loved just as much as them. I think this whole thing also applies to the community itself. By writing about these things so casually, I’m putting out a message that basically says ‘Hey, I’m gay, and it’s okay to talk about it.’”

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And so, as an openly lesbian singer/songwriter, “to me, it feels really empowering to be fighting for equally every single day, and with every song that I write and put out into the world. It’s so heartwarming to see milestones of the LGBT community being recognized – like the recent legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan, or the Metro Manila Pride March reaching over 70,000 attendees, for example. In a more personal case, I’ve gotten messages from listeners saying that my music has given them the courage to come out, or has just helped them through difficult times in general. There may be pitfalls every now and then, but I do strongly believe that we are progressing towards a more love-filled world; and it’s a nice feeling to think that I am and always will be a part of what made that happen.”

BETTER REPRESENTATION

But it wouldn’t hurt if – as she earlier mentioned – lesbian artists in the Philippines start getting being represented enough.

“It would be nice if the media (shone) light on a more diverse range of lesbian artists. Like people of different skin tones, different body types, different ethnicities, et cetera. Because there’s no right or wrong way to ‘look like’ or ‘be’ a lesbian. It doesn’t have to feel so limiting,” she said. “Plus, there may be a number of under-appreciated but extremely talented lesbian role models whom the world needs to know about.”

But at least for now, her music is helping fill a void as Pixie Labrador continues to be a lesbian artist particularly in this generation.

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NEWSMAKERS

Pinoy wins Mr. Gay World 2019

John Jeffrey Carlos won as Mr. Gay World 2019, the second time the title went to the Philippines (and Asia).

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Screencap from John Jeffrey Carlos' video for Mr. Gay World 2019

Pinoy rainbow pride.

John Jeffrey Carlos won as Mr. Gay World 2019, the second time the title went to the Philippines (and Asia).

The 41-year-old local of General Trias, Cavite is not new to pageantry, first trying his luck to represent the country in the same pageant in 2016. He placed fourth runner-up then, losing to John Raspado, who ended up winning the first Mr. Gay World title for the country.

Carlos is actually also already relatively known in various circles – e.g. in Facebook and Instagram, where his repeatedly “liked” photos range from showcasing living a luxurious lifestyle in Manila, traveling from one country to another, flexing his muscles during a workout, or wearing swimming trunks and posing provocatively for no other reason but to satisfy the fantasies of his social media followers.

Carlos – who obtained his bachelor’s degree in hotel and restaurant management at the Cavite State University, where he also played for the men’s varsity volleyball team – also appeared in some movies directed by the late Wenn Deramas, such as “Moron 5.2: The Transformation” (2014) and “Wang Fam” (2015).

“When it comes to pageantry, the best trait of Filipino representatives [in general] is they always surprise people with their biggest ideas, just like what Catriona Gray did [in Miss Universe],” he said to Outrage Magazine in an earlier interview.

Perhaps typical of many beauty titlists who are new to their advocacies, Carlos only recently partnered wth Mental Health PH, an organization that promotes awareness about mental health through social media, a few days after winning the Mr. Fahrenheit 2019 title.

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All the same, he said that “I think it’s a very good platform for me to push my advocacy, as it is very timely and relevant, especially with the LGBTQI community… We’ve heard so much about mental health issues and things are getting worse. In my own little way, I want to spread awareness about depression, so people will know what to do in case they feel some of the symptoms of this mental illness, affecting us and our loved ones.”

As Carlos wears the second Mr. Gay World title for the Philippines, he stressed: “We have to reach out to people with depression. Together, we can turn this illness to wellness.”

Carlos – who competed with 21 other contestants in Cape Town, South Africa – has a partner and they’ve been living together for the past seven years.

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People You Should Know

Overcome doubts to be happier version of yourself, says gay Ateneo grad who topped 2018 bar exams

Openly gay, Atty. Sean James Borja obtained the highest score of 89.3060%, leading the 1,800 aspiring lawyers who passed the bar exams.

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Photo credit: Facebook/Atty. Sean James Borja

“Definitely there were a lot of times I doubted myself but I’m happy to say that I did overcome those doubts and insecurities and I’m just happy to be me right now.”

These are the words of now Atty. Sean James Borja, an Ateneo de Manila University alumnus, who topped the 2018 bar exams.

Openly gay, Borja obtained the highest score of 89.3060%, leading the 1,800 aspiring lawyers who passed the bar exams.

Interviewed by ABS-CBN News Channel following the Supreme Court’s announcement of the results of the 2018 bar exam, Borja was asked if he had ever felt that “being gay did not make you worthy to follow your aspirations.”

Borja was quoted as saying that “definitely… I guess especially during grade school — you know how grade school is like when you’re being bullied for being different and it was during that time… where you think you’re not good enough to be at the top; to be a lawyer to fulfill your dreams just because of who you are.”

When Borja delivered his valedictory address for class 2018 of the Ateneo Law School, Borja actually talked about his being part of the LGBTQIA community.

The rest of the top 10 are:

  • Marcley Augustus Natu-el, University of San Carlos, 87.53%
  • Mark Lawrence Badayos, University of San Carlos, 85.842%
  • Daniel John Fordan, Ateneo de Manila University, 85.443%
  • Katrina Monica Gaw, Ateneo de Manila University, 85.421%
  • Nadaine Tongco, University of the Philippines, 85.032%
  • Patricia Sevilla, University of the Philippines, 84.859%
  • Kathrine Ting, De La Salle University-Manila, 84.857%
  • Jebb Lynus Cane, University of San Carlos, 84.805%
  • Alan Joel Pita, University of San Carlos, 84.693%
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The 2018 bar exam posted a passing rate of 22.07%, which is lower than the previous year’s passing rate of 25.5%.

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People You Should Know

John Jeffrey Carlos eyes Mr. Gay World 2019 title in South Africa

A closer look at John Jeffrey Carlos, a 41-year-old realtor and online entrepreneur from Cavite, who will compete with 24 other gay men in the 11th installment of Mr. Gay World contest in Cape Town, South Africa.

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Images courtesy of Mr. Gay World Philippines Organization

It may be difficult to fill the void left by John Raspado, who won the country’s first Mr. Gay World title in Maspalomas, Spain two years ago because the original always seems better; and to keep pace with him, the next Filipino Mr. Gay World aspirant needs to be worth twice as much.

When John Jeffrey Carlos first tried his luck in Mr. Gay World Philippines pageant back in October 2016, he was deemed by the pageants fans and pundits as “the one who would make the others compete harder.” Prior to the competition, he was already known to some circles via Facebook and Instagram, with repeatedly “liked” photos ranging from living a luxurious lifestyle in Manila, traveling from one country to another, flexing his muscles during a workout, or wearing swimming trunks and posing provocatively for no other reason but to satisfy the fantasies of his social media followers.

But the judges that time didn’t give this flawless-skinned gay hunk from General Trias, Cavite high enough scores to enter the final round of the competition. “Janjep” (his nickname) finished in fourth place. It was Raspado, a native of Baguio City, who walked away with the top plum. He would later on become the Philippines’ first Mr. Gay World victor, in Maspalomas, Spain.

Fast forward to the present and Carlos was teary eyed while thanking everyone who attended his send-off press conference arranged by Mr. Gay World Philippines national director Wilbert Tolentino, at The One 690 Entertainment Bar in Quezon City. Winning the Mr. Fahrenheit search three weeks ago gave him the golden-ticket opportunity to wear the Philippine sash in Mr. Gay World 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa between April 28 and May 5.

Mr. Gay World, a “four-day challenge” founded by Australia-based philanthropist Eric Butter, is now on its 11th year of determining which cisgender gay man supposedly best represents his national spirit while serving as an ambassador for LGBTQI rights worldwide.

Carlos, a realtor, online entrepreneur and “cyber star” from General Trias, Cavite, who is already 41 years old, will be competing with 24 other gay men to be the successor of Jordan Bruno, a 26-year-old Australian reality TV chef, cookbook author and owner of an LGBTQI cooking school. 

Though Carlos wants to replicate Raspado’s historic feat, he said to Outrage Magazine that he’s uncomfortable being likened to the titlist.

“When it comes to pageantry, the best trait of Filipino representatives [in general] is they always surprise people with their biggest ideas, just like what Catriona Gray did [in Miss Universe]. Perhaps I’ll just take my inspiration from her. It’s like from day one, she’s [already] a fighter… I will surprise them with my ideas, like what she did, from what she wore, from the way she spoke, everything… well-planned. That’s how I prepared, with the help of my mentor and our national director, boss Wilbert, and Sir Rodgil Flores of the Kagandahang Flores camp. They really groomed me for Mr. Gay World 2019.”

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Janjep Carlos, a realtor, online entrepreneur and “cyber star” from General Trias, Cavite, who is already 41 years old, will be competing with 24 other gay.

Without revealing what he would be wearing during the preliminaries and coronation night, he – nonetheless – named those who helped him: Albert Andrada, the designer behind the iconic royal blue evening gown of Miss Universe 2015 Pia Wurtzbach, provided his formal wear; Razen Montero, for his national costume; and Domz Ramos, the official swimwear designer of Binibining Pilipinas pageant, for his swimwear.

And if Gray has “lava walk” and “slow-motion twirl,” Carlos has the “baklava walk”.  

GETTING PERSONAL

Carlos obtained his bachelor’s degree in hotel and restaurant management at the Cavite State University, where he also played for the men’s varsity volleyball team.

Striking the ball before it touches the ground gave him everything—his education was paid for, along with his food and board. It also gave him a support group—teammates and coaching staff who all wanted him to succeed and strive for excellence, in and out of the court.

After he got out of school, started working, paying for his own expenses and providing for his family, he realized how incredible it is to graduate not owing any money.

He also appeared in some movies directed by the late Wenn Deramas, such as “Moron 5.2: The Transformation” (2014) and “Wang Fam” (2015).

Carlos has a partner and they’ve been living together for the past seven years. And even if he’s openly gay, there are still women who get attracted to him. “There were cases wherein some of them were very vocal about their feelings toward me. But I never concealed ‘the real me’ ever since. They tell me they know that I’m gay, so I don’t have to explain myself,” he said with a wide smile.

Janjep Carlos has a partner and they’ve been living together for the past seven years.

MENTAL HEALTH ADVOCATE

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If his Mr. Gay World Philippines predecessors focused their respective reigns on HIV prevention, de-stigmatization and care, Carlos is taking a different route.

“My advocacy focuses on fighting depression, through my #IllnessToWellnessCampaign,” he said.

A few days after he won as Mr. Fahrenheit 2019, he partnered with Mental Health PH, an organization that promotes awareness about mental health through social media.

“I think it’s a very good platform for me to push my advocacy, as it is very timely and relevant, especially with the LGBTQI community… We’ve heard so much about mental health issues and things are getting worse. In my own little way, I want to spread awareness about depression, so people will know what to do in case they feel some of the symptoms of this mental illness, affecting us and our loved ones.”

A month before joining Mr. Fahrenheit, Carlos traveled to South Africa. It included a trip to a psychiatric rehabilitation facility catering to impoverished communities.

“I had a chance to visit Cape Mental Health and I saw the situation there. We have to be informed. We have to reach out to people with depression. Together, we can turn this illness to wellness. I’m happy to come back in Cape Town, as I am now more familiar with the port city as well as with the people’s way of living.”

THREE-PEAT

Tolentino was the first Filipino to compete in the inaugural edition of Mr. Gay World, in Whistler, Canada in 2009. He topped the sports challenge and harvested the Best in National Costume, Best in Formal Wear and Mr. Gay Popularity special awards. He received the local franchise for the Mr. Gay World pageant in 2016, after it was held by Noemi Alberto since its inception a decade ago.

Under his management, the Filipino representatives’ standings in Mr. Gay World improved: Christian Lacsamana, a 30-year-old public high school teacher from San Fernando City, Pampanga, topped the online voting, named Mister Social Media, won the Best in National Costume award, and placed second runner-up to Roger Gosalbez Pitaluga of Spain in April 2016. Raspado, a 36-year-old online entrepreneur of health supplements from Baguio City, made history by becoming the first Filipino and 100% Asian to win the title in May 2017.

But Tolentino shocked Mr. Gay World Philippines devotees when he announced his resignation as national director two months after Raspado won. Coming from a very conservative Filipino-Chinese upbringing, he wanted to spend time with his parents, especially with his aging father, as well as to focus on his then newly born son.

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But “a few months back this year, I dreamt that the Philippines will have three consecutive wins in Mr. Gay World. That prompted me to once again assume the national directorship [for Mr. Gay World]. And this year, we are very proud to say that we have the best delegate. I promised that as national director, I would do my very best in preparing Janjep for his international competition.”

A month before joining Mr. Fahrenheit, Janjep Carlos traveled to South Africa. It included a trip to a psychiatric rehabilitation facility catering to impoverished communities.

Mr. Gay World 2019’s roster also includes Australia’s Rad Mitic, 36, business development manager; Nick Van Vooren, a 22-year-old polyvalent caregiver from Belgium; Botswana’s Oratile Victor Phofhedi, 26, chef and book author; Raphael dos Anjos, a 31-year-old Brazilian teacher and sign language interpreter; Canada’s Josh Rimer, 41, travel vlogger, show host and producer for national LGBT TV station OUTv; Carlos Navarro, a 30-year-old sexual diversity and gender equity activist from Chile; Costa Rica’s Marko Soto, a 25-year-old Greek immigrant, veterinary student and gay rights activist; Ismo Poutiainen, 35, hairdresser from Finland; Germany’s Marcel Danner, 30, marketing officer for an art house cinema group and crowd funding campaigner; Oliver Pusztai, gay rights activist and lifestyle blogger from Hungary; India’s Suresh Ramdas, a 37-year-old information technology executive; and Guilherme Souza, 25, writer for Gay Community News national monthly free gay magazine in Ireland.

Japan’s Tiger Shigetake, 21, multilingual gay rights activist, motivational speaker and international business student; Kaleb Omar, a 30-year-old international business graduate, professional model and sports coordinator from Mexico; Namibia’s Rivelino Reinecke, 21, gay rights activist and law student; Nick Francis, a 27-year-old Samoan immigrant who is an ambassador for New Zealand’s Aids Foundation; Panama’s Iann Carlos Jean, 25, entrepreneur; Jorge Seminario, 28, management officer for an international tourism company in Peru; South Africa’s Chris Emmanuel, a 42-year-old fitness buff and gym owner who champions the need for wider acceptance of the LGBT community; Francisco Alvarado, 29, physician from Spain; Taiwan’s Colin Lu, a 27-year-old health and fitness professional; Chayodhom Samibat, 35, personal trainer, chef and mixologist from Thailand; and Walter Moreno, a 24-year-old model and surfer for Venezuela’s national team.  

Filipinos can help Carlos win the Mister Gay World Internet Popularity special award to advance in the semifinal round, by visiting https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xvgcps7X34Y and clicking the thumbs up button below the video; they can also register and cast their votes 10 times every 24 hours via https://mrgayworld.com/vote/ until 5:59 a.m. of May 4, Saturday (Manila time).

Mr. Gay World 2019 finals will be held at the Cape Town City Hall in Cape Town, South Africa, and will be streamed live via the organization’s official Facebook page and YouTube channel on May 5, Sunday, 1 a.m. (Manila time).

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#KaraniwangLGBT

Gay in the highlands

What is it like to be gay and belong to an ethnic tribe in the Philippines? For Romnick Ampi, he only knew of acceptance and being encouraged to live a better life, showing that LGBTQIA people can achieve more. And he hopes for this to be the general concept – i.e. that looking down on LGBTQIA people stop to focus on what they can achieve in life.

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This is part of #KaraniwangLGBT, which Outrage Magazine officially launched on July 26, 2015 to offer vignettes of LGBT people/living, particularly in the Philippines, to give so-called “everyday people” – in this case, the common LGBT people – that chance to share their stories.
As Outrage Magazine editor Michael David C. Tan says: “All our stories are valid – not just the stories of the ‘big shots’. And it’s high time we start telling all our stories.”

Romnick Ampi, 27, from Barangay Meohao in Sitio Palusok at the foot of Mount Apo in Mindanao, was in elementary school (“Around 12 years old”) when he knew he’s gay/a member of the LGBTQIA community.

“At that time,” he said, “hindi ko maiwasan magkagusto sa kapuwa ko gender (I couldn’t help myself from getting attracted to other men).”

At first, Romnick thought that what he was feeling wasn’t real. “But I observed that what I really feel for men is different. Yung puso ko ay parang puso pa rin ng babae (Like heterosexual women, I was attracted to men).”

But – belonging to the Manobo ethnic tribe (his mother is Visayan, while my father is Diangan) – Romnick said he only knew of acceptance.

“And even when I go to more mountainous areas, no one is surprised with a gay man like me. No one there bullies people with the same gender as me.”

“Yes, I told my family about me being gay. They did not have bad reactions. I am happy that they even support what I do. They particularly support my means of living that is aligned with my being part of the LGBTQIA community,” he said.

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Romnick noted – and stressed – that “nirerespeto po nila gaya ng pagrerespeto nila sa kaloikasan atsaka ng mga ninuno. So sa tao po, nirerespeto nila kung ano po ang LGBT (members of our tribe respect LGBTQIA people, just as they respect nature and our ancestors. They respect people, including LGBTQIA people),” he said. “We are not discouraged to live as LGBTQIA people,” even if part of this acceptance is anchored in the stereotypical expectation that LGBTQIA people (gay men and trans women, in particular) “bring… happiness particularly during local celebrations.”

This acceptance makes Meohao an ideal place for Romnick. In fact, he said, if one goes even higher in mountainous areas, it’s common to see members of the LGBTQIA community. “And even when I go to more mountainous areas, no one is surprised with a gay man like me. No one there bullies people with the same gender as me.”

Not surprisingly, “ang feeling ko ay happy, sa tingin ko ay walang kalungkutan na mangyayari ditto sa Meohao dahil nakita ko naman na ang lugar na ito ay peaceful at mapagmahal yung mga tao (I feel happy here; I feel that there’s no sadness here. The place is peaceful. And people here are loving/accepting),” he said.

“Members of our tribe respect LGBTQIA people, just as they respect nature and our ancestors. They respect people, including LGBTQIA people.”

Romnick’s family was originally from Davao, but because of his father’s belonging to the Manobo tribe, they moved to Meohao.

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Romnick has four siblings; he is the only one who goes to school. “All the others stopped going to school because of financial issues,” he said. “This is why I am studying hard so I can graduate and then be able to help them. I particularly want to help my siblings make a living.”

Romnick currently takes up Bachelor of Science in Food Technology at the University of Southern Mindanao, a course that is in line with his field of interest – i.e. events organizing.

“Perhaps this is also God’s gift to me – to take a course that is in line with the skills I now have,” he said.

Now moonlighting as an events organizer, Romnick had an early start working. “I discovered I have skills in organizing events when I was still in elementary school. While watching my teachers do the decorating in school events, such as the closing ceremonies, they told me to give decorating a try,” he said.

And nowadays, “per event, I earn from P5,000 – at least for the smaller events.”

Now single, Romnick said that not having a boyfriend is, for now, ideal. “Mas mabuti yung wala pa akong jowa para makapag-focus ako sa family ko at sa sarili ko (This way I can focus on my family and myself).”

To people who belittle LGBTQIA people, Romnick said “don’t look down on us.”

For him, LGBTQIA people thrive – and this is even if they are not supported by their parents/families. “Because LGBTQIA people are skillful. They will find ways to make a living,” he said. “I’m seeing it now in the world, and for myself, that LGBTQIA people can do good things even if they’re (just) LGBTQIA people.”

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This is also what he eyes to do in life: Do acts so that others to see that not all gay men are weak, that gay people are also skilled. “What heterosexual people can do, LGBTQIA people can do, too.”

To people who belittle LGBTQIA people, Romnick Ampi said “don’t look down on us.”

Particularly for younger LGBTQIA people, Romnick advised: “Huwag kayong huminto o huwag kayong ma-discourage kahit sa ano man yung sasabihin ng ibang tao. Dahil hindi nila alam ano ang feelings ninyo as… LGBT. At ipagpapatuloy ninyo dahil alam ko sa bandang huli… and Panginoon nga may plano sa ating lahat (Not to stop being who they are; or be discouraged because of what other people say. These people do not know what you feel as LGBTQIA people. So just continue being who you are because I know that in the end, God has plans for all of us).”

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